The greatest joke I ever heard was when I was eleven in Auschwitz. My family and I arrived by a German car that was crammed with bags and snacks and elbows rubbing together. Grass combed over unused rusted tracks and as we walked towards enormous gates that were wide open, one couldn’t help but feel that all seemed welcome here if only they didn’t notice there was no exit sign.
It was morning of a summer day but the clouds swallowed the sun whole. Air bit my cold lips as I tightened my jacket. My father held my hand. All our feet marched together. There was only one sound. Grass collapsed beneath us.
Above my head, an unintelligible German phrase was plastered on the iron gates. I asked my dad what it meant and he told me he wasn’t sure. I listened to a woman beside me mumbling the phrase Work makes you free. I gazed back to the sign and noticed that the words were woven together as if by a single stroke. I wondered if the welder who finished that sign felt liberated in doing so but before I could stumble on any semblance of answer, my parents told me to hurry inside. Rain would come, they said in Polish, and I didn’t want to get wet.
Then it hit me quite suddenly – it was the reason my parent’s wanted me to be quick. This was all an elaborate joke, and I was the only one who would be laughing. I was the only one who got the punch line: Auschwitz was a joke reserved for the coldest and hardest of laughter’s.
Because when you really think about, and I mean you wrack your brain for all that it has done and all that you think you can do, you’ll realize that it had to be. This controversial horror couldn’t be anything else.
Among the silent mass, here I was, an eleven year old, submerged in the ruins of hell, and I was told that this was real. How could it be? I was a boy dressed in sunshine, whose daily reveries were play and play in that order. I was convinced of people’s goodness, not because they were necessarily good but because I was told that everyone had the potential to be good and would choose it eventually. And I learned at a very young age that if you didn’t, if you weren’t kind, you weren’t anything at all.
And yet at Auschwitz, I was told that out of those chimneys once smoked people’s last breaths and those mounds of hair in front of me were once primed and prepped and maintained just like my hair was and those pictures of people with dinner-plates for eyes and near-naked ribs for armor were people like me, people with thoughts and feelings and ideas and goals and a lifetime that they should be living. I was told that they were mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, Jews and Gypsies, gays and lesbians, politicians and factory workers, rabbis and priests, Polish and Romanian, sinners and lovers, friends and foes, and humans most of all.
There in Auschwitz, I learned that a little boy like me would die for being a little boy and not much more than that.
So, I held my father’s hand and squeezed it and wanted to tell him the funniest joke in the world and we’d laugh about it in a little while. In a few moments, I would tell my parents that this was a farce and those tears budding in his eyes could be washed away along with mine.
I had known evil – my sister made me ride the middle seat on the way there – and this wasn’t evil. It was impossible; even the devil would look away if he could. No human would ever participate in such senseless massacres, and if they did, then I could too and an eleven year old with Lego waiting for him in car was far from sinister.
I began to find the words to tell my parents this revelation but then I was moving again and a haze of pictures rolled on as I stepped into one of the red-speckled brick buildings.
A woman framed in black and white caught my eye. Her head was shaven in sloppy patches, a portion of her skin seems to glisten, and unlike the hundreds of others in the pictures, she was not staring into the camera. She was looking off into the distance, as if something else had caught her attention right there and then, and part of me felt as though I was intruding on this little moment, however brief and however forced. I knew nothing about her and she knew nothing about me and yet, I saw the sum of her life weighing on her poor posture and the memories of doing, feeling, smiling flying by her eyes.
As I gazed at her and I tried to imagine what her laugh sounded like or what she enjoyed eating, I decided I would hold my tongue. With this reticence came the realization that if by some chance Auschwitz did happen and this wasn’t all a joke on me and humans could truly be anything but, then there in Poland on that mist drunk summer day, the year 2003 was stuck in 1943.
2003 flashed for a minute. I walked up barren stairs that had just been washed with soapy water. Why were they washed and from what? I wasn’t sure, though I assumed that some of the stains could never come out.
1943 blurred into the seconds. The walls shake and I shake with them. Another train arrived. The gray solider yells overtop of its roar. She looks young; twenty maybe. Under her eyelids is a thin black line and her lips are lapped faintly red. She interrupts her speech to hit an old woman. The woman crumbles like a snowball against a wall and no one moves. The solider pucks her lips – the lipstick hasn’t smudged – and she continues to bellow something to us. People begin to pack in a line. Not a word is said. Feet come together as if chained and I hold my son’s hand. Where were we going? These steps are solid and cold. I look to my son and he jumps every second step. “Leap frog,” he whispers to me. He is smiling from ear to ear.
An hour passed in 2003. A pair of unbroken mirrored everyone in the room. Most of the lenses were shattered, though a few remained intact. A guide spoke almost silently about how many people were brought into this room and told that they should remove all personal belongings before showering. She pointed to a mound of hair to the left. As she did, a man coughed, removed his glasses, and kept them off.
1943 ticked on. A man shouts some other command and people undress. I hesitate initially as I have a scar on my back that I am self-conscious of. The solider notices how slow I am and comes to me, tearing off my clothes. He spits in my face. I never let go off my son’s hand. The spit dribbles down my face as they shave my hair. My son is beside me. A camera flashes, though I am looking at my son playing with a string in his hands.
2003 began. The room was tiled a pale green. Not a word was said. The air somehow felt different in here. One woman covered her mouth. I looked above me, and there at the top of the tiles were fingernails carved into the ceiling.
1943 ended. I am so weak, so tired. My veins feel like they are exploding within me. I am going to die, but maybe, maybe my son won’t. Maybe he can live if he breathes the fresh air near the ceiling. With all my strength, I stand up and place him on my shoulders. I tell him to stand on me even if I fall. He looks at me with eyes burned red and nods. He tells me he wants to go home. I say, “Soon.” I kiss him with lips that feel like sandpaper and with numb arms, I raise him to the heavens.
When we left Auschwitz, the chimneys were quietly breathing; no life escaped from them. Time had become unstuck, though in between the morning and night of that day in 2003, I aged sixty years.
As we walked together from the gates that welcomed us forever if only we never left, I inhaled the air of Auschwitz and I exhaled a mist that froze in front of me, and a little bit of me died right there.